There are two lines of thinking among the politicians in the EU on relations with Russia. There have always been those who call for – maintaining, restarting, refreshing – a dialogue with the current leadership of Moscow. This line of thinking was predominant until Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014. But recently it was brought to spotlight again by President Macron, wrote Andrius Kubilius, former Prime Minister of Lithuania, and Member of the European Parliament.
Then there are those, who warn against such “dialogue” as counterproductive and outright dangerous, those who hear voices of the democratic opposition and younger generation of Russians who want a real choice in elections, who are tired of corruption and nepotism.
The main difference between these two approaches boils down to one thing – belief whether Russia can become more democratic, more European country, or is it doomed to authoritarianism forever.
Putin, with his aggressive and unpredictable behaviour, aims to convince the West that Russia even in a long term future, cannot become democratic, and the West needs to adapt to “Putin’s Russia”. President Macron recently showed that he does not believe in such transformation and he is ready to lead the West into adaptation towards “Putin Russia”.
In CEE we still keep the hope, and I believe that a transformation of Russia is possible in a long-run and even more, inevitable. And that the West can assist Russia in such transformation.
That is why we are saying clearly and loudly – it is time for the West to develop a policy towards Russia that is long-term and pro-active, to help Russia to return to the path of democratic European-type development. We should not have any illusions that such transformation may happen under Putin’s rule. Therefore, the EU’s strategy must, first and foremost, be geared towards assisting a post-Putin Russia to transform into a non-aggressive democratic country that follows European standards.
There should be three main elements of this new strategy – deterrence, containment and transformation. The two first elements are more or less well known and implemented now.
A deterrence strategy has a clear objective of deterring Russia’s military threat. Securing NATO military presence in the Baltic region is a vital instrument of the deterrence strategy. The US National Security Strategy identified Russia and China as major threats to US national security. It would be good if the EU were likewise capable of detecting the primary source of threat in its security strategy.
Sanction regime, which was introduced by the West as a reaction to Russia’s aggression to Ukraine, must continue or even be strengthened until Russia fully implements the Minsk agreements and returns illegally annexed Crimea back to Ukraine.
A containment strategy is necessary for effectively countering Russia’s hybrid threats by preventing it from influencing the sentiments of our citizens, occupying the hearts and minds of our people, and affecting the outcome of elections and activities of political parties in foreign countries. That is why the EU needs to have a consolidated and centralised holistic anti-hybrid containment strategy, including an energy independence strategy.
There is, however, a third element of the West long-term strategy towards Russia, which up until now was none existant. A strategy of transformation refers to our thinking about not only the ways to defend ourselves from Russian threats but also the means to assist Russia’s transformation into a European country. The transformation will not happen overnight or even in a year or two. It is, however, necessary and doable. While the future of Russia is for Russians to determine, the West can help with that. This will nevertheless require an appropriate long-term Western strategy towards Russia.
The transformation of this kind is the only way to no longer be situated next to a threat we face today.
The underlying idea behind the transformation strategy is simple. Two things can assist Russians in seeking a transformation of their country, namely:
1) a “success belt” along the Russian border (including Ukraine, in particular) to set an excellent example for Russians. One should not underestimate the impact of Russia having successful, democratic, and market-oriented neighbours along its borders. If they can succeed, Russia can too. This is why “success belt” is the Western “weapon” posing the greatest danger to the Kremlin’s regime and feared most by Putin. His strategic goal in Ukraine is to prevent the development of a prosperous state.
That is why the West should do their utmost to thwart Putin’s strategy towards Ukraine. The success of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova is what the West can make happen, and it is currently the only instrument available for the West to help Russia transform into a pro-European country. Therefore, one of our current primary goals should be having a clear Western strategy on ways to build a ‘success belt’ along the Russian border (starting from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova).
2) a clear message of the West to the people of Russia on how the future relations between the West and Russia could look like had Russia finally returned to the path of democratic pro-European development. The West needs to change the interlocutor and the content in their dialogue with Russia. The dialogue with Putin is counterproductive and will be further regarded as a manifestation of Western weakness. Such signs provoke Putin into behaving even more aggressively. As considers strategic issues and Russia’s future, instead of directly talking with Putin, the West must indirectly engage with a pro-European Russia of the future, which does not exist yet but may emerge after the end of Putin’s era.
The West needs a strategy that would demonstrate the potential of relations with a post-imperial and non-aggressive Russia (which is going to happen one day!) by already presenting possible models of integration of a democratic Russia into the Western structures. This could include a broad spectrum of promising future relations, including, among others, a visa waiver, a customs union, and a free trade agreement with the EU. Finally, this would help ordinary Russians and the Russian elite unconnected with Putin’s kleptocratic regime to understand what they are losing today because of the aggressive behaviour of the regime and what they would win with a pro-European Russia (after Putin) evolving in the long term.
All in all, this is how a Western strategy towards Russia could look like. To make it happen, the West should have more faith in Russia’s capability to transform one day and embark on the path of democratic European development. Likewise, they should trust in their potential to assist Russia on this uneasy path of transformation through a long-term strategy of support and its consistent implementation.
This is where the EU’s joint efforts should be currently focused on.